This Sunday, Yom HaShoah, a number of members and I will be joining with others from Belsize Square and The Liberal Synagogues on a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Centre. Time has passed, decades already. And what have we learnt, as a society in the decades since the greatest atrocity committed by man against man, by man against Jew.
Below is an extract from the transcript of an interview with Walter Stier, the official responsible for the “special trains” that transported millions of Jews and others to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. You can watch a longer excerpt of the interview, from the 1985 documentary Shoah, here [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2I9Ccb520A]
Q: What’s the difference between a special and a regular train?
A: A regular train may be used by anyone who purchases a ticket. . . . A special train has to be ordered. The train is specially put together and people pay group fares. . . .
Q: But why were there more special trains during the war than before or after?
A: I see what you’re getting at. You’re referring to the so-called resettlement trains. . . . Those trains were ordered by the Ministry of Transport of the Reich [the German government].
Q: But mostly, at that time, who was being “resettled”?
A: No. We didn’t know that. Only when we were fleeing from Warsaw ourselves, did we learn that they could have been Jews, or criminals, or similar people.
Q: Special trains for criminals?
A: No, that was just an expression. You couldn’t talk about that. Unless you were tired of life, it was best not to mention that.
Q: But you knew that the trains to Treblinka or Auschwitz were—
A: Of course we knew. I was the last district; without me these trains couldn’t reach their destination.
Q: Did you know that Treblinka meant extermination?
A: Of course not!
Q: You didn’t know?
A: Good God, no! How could we know? I never went to Treblinka. I stayed in Krakow, in Warsaw, glued to my desk.
Q: You were a . . .
A: I was strictly a bureaucrat! …But as to what happened, I didn’t…
Q: What was Treblinka for you? Treblinka or Auschwitz?
A: Yes, for us, Treblinka, Belzec, and all that were concentration camps.
Q: A destination.
A: Yes, that’s all. For example, a train coming from Essen, or Cologne, or elsewhere, room had to be made for them there. With the war, and the Allies advancing everywhere, those people had to be concentrated in camps.
Q: When exactly did you find out?
A: Well, when the word got around, when it was whispered. It was never said outright. Good God, no! They’d have hauled you off at once! We heard things…
The website Ask Big Questions are using this extract to encourage us to engage with those things we chose to ignore. What have we looked past, what have we chosen to focus on to avoid having to focus on other challenges that are, perhaps, more uncomfortable.
It’s still far too easy to look past the suffering of others. It’s still far too easy to explain away complicity with dissembling. It’s still far too easy for those who prey on the weakness of others to get away with appalling acts of antisemitism, racism and other despicable acts.
I don’t think we have the right to say ‘Never Again.’